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U.S. to End Reliance on Authoritarian Leaders


The New York Times, Dec. 27, 2003

A succession of startling developments in Pakistan has left analysts from Islamabad to Washington guessing. At the center of the puzzle is Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is either losing or tightening his grip on power and either democratizing his rule or moving closer to hard-line Islamic radicals.

Twice in the last two weeks would-be assassins have nearly blown up General Musharraf's car as his motorcade drove through the tightly guarded military center of Rawalpindi. Between the two attempts, General Musharraf announced a surprising deal with an alliance of anti-American Islamic parties in which he pledged to give up his powerful post as army chief by next December and submit to a parliamentary vote on completing the rest of his presidential term, originally set to run through 2007.

Even at its most transparent, Pakistani politics are difficult to decode. The shifting domestic and international alliances made by its leaders do not always turn out to be what they seem. Right now, things are even murkier than usual. Large numbers of radical Islamists, military officers and secular democrats are furious with General Musharraf. Other members of these same groups are making tactical alliances with him. He has been America's ally in Afghanistan, for which Washington has rewarded him and Pakistan well. Yet he has been unable to secure Pakistan's borders against a resurgent Taliban and has been equivocal toward Kashmiri terrorists.

The military is Pakistan's dominant institution, and General Musharraf is its most visible representative. His public break with the Taliban and recent conciliatory statements over Kashmir might have alienated important military supporters. Some Pakistanis say that the Rawalpindi attacks could never have breached tight security without army help. No clear explanation has emerged yet for his deal with Islamic parties and promise to resign as army chief.

President Bush recently declared that Washington would end its bad habit of relying on authoritarian leaders like General Musharraf to ensure American security. 'Stability,' he rightly said, 'cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.' That insight should guide Washington's long-term strategy toward Pakistan. Its immediate challenge is to unravel the mysteries around General Musharraf and discover what is really going on there.